As we raced towards the open door the light from within flickered and changed in brightness as if the room was packed full of revellers, but we were somewhat surprised when we stepped inside and looked around.
Somewhere between the clearing's edge and the open doorway the sounds of merriment disappeared and when we looked around, the room was almost deserted.
It was a welcoming place, nevertheless, and if we felt rather confused by this sudden unexpected change, we chose to ignore it in favour of the huge log fire that crackled merrily down the far end of the room.
The building itself exuded homeliness. A warm glowing light spread out of the open door to illuminate the pale green grass of the large clearing it inhabited. On one side of the door slivers of much paler, fainter lights glowed: a brace of windows, curtains drawn across them to hide the rain outside. A chimney climbed above the roof on one side of the building, and through the pouring rain we watched thick grey wood smoke snaking up into the night sky.
"A fire!" I remarked with glee.
"Ale!" my friend prophesied.
The sound of laughter and conviviality beckoned us.
The source of gaiety was somewhere within the forest, it seemed, and we followed the sounds with enthusiasm. As we persevered through hindering trees and undergrowth that threatened to trip us at every step, the rain fell heavier and the noise of raindrops on the leafy tegument above sometimes obscured the sounds of revelry.
But then, just as I feared we had been walking blindly in circles beneath the dripping canopy, my new comrade spotted a light in the distance.
Closer inspection proved it to be the open doorway of an inn. There could be no more welcome a sight!
When we first heard laughter, the stars were slowly disappearing behind rainclouds which had been creeping up on us since noon.
At the first drops of rain we'd set up our tents, but the sound of human voices, faint but distinct, stopped us in our tracks.
"People!" I gasped. We had neither of us seen anyone else for three days or more.
He took one look at his partly erected tent and chuckled.
"Sounds like a party to me!" His Scottish accent had gained an extra musical lilt at that thought. "Come!"
Shivering and damp, I needed no further invitation.
The following morning we determined to accompany each other, at least for the forthcoming day. I presumed that my adventurous friend would then grow bored with me and seek a different escapade.
He did, but not in the way either of us could have anticipated.
The day passed us by at walking pace: gently, and with great beauty. The road led us above a deep valley where a river occasionally glinted through canopies of trees, then took us through abundant farmland and the company of watchful cows and curious horses. As evening slowly darkened, lush forest encircled us once again.
I don't recall which regiment he'd served in, but at one time he'd fought within thirteen miles of my own. He'd served with bravery and distinction, too, yet like myself when the conflict ended he was happy to throw down the sword.
The sun was almost gone when we finished our introductions and, almost unspoken, decided we'd make camp for the night in the very spot we met.
Two tents and a campfire later and we had eaten well and bade each other Good night and Sleep well as the Milky Way waltzed slowly and unstoppably across the everlasting blackness.
He told me he was twenty three years old - about my own age - and was undertaking a walking tour of Europe. His aim was to reach the Baltic, but he didn't mind if he failed. His intention, he said more than once, was to know the world now that it had overcome its tantrum, and to enjoy whatever experiences befell him. This, his boundless enthusiasm, is what features strongest in my memory. Only afterwards did I realise that such unlimited enthusiasm can often tend towards recklessness.
For good or ill, we all carry our own destinies within us, I suppose.
"Good evening," I replied, taking his hand. His handshake was firm and exuberant.
He apologised for startling me and probably introduced himself then. True to his impressively broad accent, he came from the Highlands and I told him I was delighted to be able to meet and speak with another British fellow. I had a sprinkling of knowledge of the language of this country, but of the local dialect here in these mountains I had no idea. I'd gotten by, for the last week or so, on sign language and misunderstandings. It was a great relief to speak English again.
"Indeed it is!"
The voice boomed from behind, and it startled me.
I spun around to face a wide smile surrounded by an even wider black beard. Bright, active eyes glinted out from under a wide brimmed hat and his right hand was held out, proffering a handshake.
"It is indeed a beautiful world, and the evening accompanies it perfectly!" he observed.
He was dressed much like myself: good stout walking boots, shorts, a top with many pockets and a backpack that threatened to burst at the seams. His skin was tanned and he looked every inch an outdoor gentleman.
A few miles along the bends of this ancient track and I'd shaken off the moroseness that my misplaced nostalgia had given root to. Yes, they were happier times, those days of school and youthful irresponsibility; yes, the world was now forever changed; but - I stopped and looked around, breathing deeply in the cooling evening air - the sun stretched my shadow, elongated over verdant grasses before me, the tops of the lush green trees danced in a breeze that smelled sweet and the air sparkled at the approach of the night.
"It is still a beautiful world!" I said aloud.
I remember I happened upon an old cart track dividing the trees. Here, the forest gave way to narrow grassy verges that edged a rock-strewn, rutted track on both sides.
I stood awhile considering which direction to go: by my compass the track went northeast or southwest. I'd been heading east throughout, so rather than risk doubling back in my adventure, I chose northeast: quarto di Tramontana verso Greco, Levante my boy, as my old housemaster at Eton would have said.
The warm smells of the schoolroom came back to me, unexpectedly filling me with nostalgia... happier times indeed!
We met just as the sun was beginning to lose itself amongst the tops of the trees. I had tramped - what? - twenty miles that day following my compass east through the forest. Like each previous day, I had planned no set destination. For the past fortnight I'd walked from town to town, village to village, recording my journey for the benefit of prosperity and the satisfaction of my pride. I had no clear aim, other than to rid my mind of the bruising of a violent few years and satisfy myself that the world was indeed still a beautiful place.
I never learned his name. He may have mentioned it, we may have exchanged names, but I can't remember. Thinking back...
...I think names were so very unimportant then, that evening we met. He was a traveller, like me. He'd served in the Great War and like myself, he'd witnessed ghastly horror. And like me he celebrated that the soiled page of history had turned. The turmoil had been over more than a year and Europe was once again a land of peace. A land scarred, true, but here amongst misty peaks and forests, a land of beauty and serenity.
She didn't, of course.
She showed me the respect of waiting until we retired to our room before revisiting the subject. Yet before I had chance to gather my thoughts - for they had cluttered my mind since the moment I realised where we were, and I needed time to arrange and order them into some coherent whole - before I had ordered them, she had added with typical consideration
"Of course if it will upset you to recount your thoughts..."
I demurred. She was a brave and sensible woman. I would tell her.
"It happened two miles from here..." I began.
"Are you unwell?"
Her hands held mine, her eyes were full of concern. But Lucy was a gentle soul and I felt unwilling to contaminate such purity by relating what had transpired those five years ago.
I shook my head.
"Then what is it, dearest?"
On the other hand, my Lucy was one of the strongest, tenacious, most resolute people I'd ever known. If there was a secret to be found, Lucy would expose it, especially if it concerned someone she loved.
I surrendered meekly.
"I shall tell you after dinner," I said, hoping against hope that she would forget.
"You've been strangely subdued these few hours, dearest," Lucy observed, disguising her concern as a throwaway remark. But I knew better. She had discerned my mood but not, of course, its cause.
Could I tell her? Should I?
A hotel porter having finally delivered the last of our luggage to our room, we had settled ourselves on our balcony and awaited... what? We awaited dinner, of course: it was five in the evening and dinner was at seven. Yet I was agitated, as if I awaited something important. I shook my head. I had no idea what I waited for.
Our honeymoon was spent recreating the Grand Tour of Europe, not quite as in previous centuries but utilising the best of our modern transportation. The scars of the Great War were healing; trains ran: if not on time, at least they ran; and there was a certain amount of safety in roaming the countryside as an English tourist.
The cityscapes of Paris, Versailles and Rome gave way to the grand, imposing mountains of eastern Europe. And here we arrived, Lucy and I, near to the scene of what was, some years ago, truly the most terrifying night of my life.
Lucy and I were wed in Oxfordshire, a small ceremony of less than five hundred people held on the beautiful rolling estate of Lord Edgar Rothmaine, Lucy's father. Our romance was a whirlwind affair - barely three months and our engagement appeared in The Times; another two months and the whole thing was organised. It was a traditional event: full regalia, horse and carriages, much dancing, choirs and a string quintet to serenade us into the evening.
Even the weather was suitably conventional and accommodating: the sun shone all day and a cooling breeze added a refreshing humour to the proceedings.